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Monday, March 02, 2009

How was your day?

Tackle It Tuesday Meme

Try This Tuesday

At school pick up we all experience variations on a theme. One child talks non-stop without drawing breath. Another is taciturn but otherwise chirpy. Still other’s are silent and may well have been silent all day. How do we encourage our children to converse? How do we ensure that the channels of communication remain open, not just now when they’re little, but for the future and those doom laden Middle School years?

How do you coax and encourage quiet and non-verbal children to converse?

Non-verbal is a term that causes a great deal of confusion to many. Surely the non-verbal child is one who does not speak? Whilst this would be a logical conclusion, it would be very far from the clinical truth. This is in part because 'non-verbal' is a liquid term, a shorthand that covers a wide spectrum of speech impairments. I only have direct experience of two versions of non-verbal:- both my boys hit the requisit milestones of child development but thereafter languished. If I had been more astute, I would have recognized that whilst technically they had met the milestones, there was a significant gap between the general and the specific. Three word sentences existed to make verbal demands for what they needed, however, the social element was absent. The subtlties of joint attention:- ‘look mum, look at the bird!’ or relationships, “look at me Mom!” or common social nuances, “I like that cat / thing / you,” failed to materialize. These, amongst many others should have warned me, but they didn’t.

I was deceived by their other skills, a facility with letters and numbers, their ability to read well above their chronological age and their willingness to pronounce long words, predominantly dinosaur names.

Rather than draw up a full list of the many scaffolding techniques available for parents, instead I’m happy to share a tool that worked for us, to a greater or lesser extent.

First I collaborated with the school who were willing to provide a daily report about both boys performance during the day. Additionally, I obtained a list of all the childrens' names in their classes. This can sometimes be difficult with very young children where privacy issues have to be addressed.

I then made a laminated question sheet for each child with half a dozen standard questions with tick boxes. Many children have greater receptive language skills than expressive language, in that they understand far more than they are able to express themselves. Hence, tick boxes provided for yes or no answers rather than anything more stressful.

If your child has a favourite colour, then now would be a good time to use it. Personalized icons also help attract their attention and personalize their input. The kinesthetic act of attaching their particular face icon to the chat sheet, helps engage them in the exercise, like a first step to acceptance and ownership, to help them have a personal investment and reinforces the one-on-one aspect.

Every day after school we went through the questions. [for weeks without any response at all!] I adapted them over time to take account of changes, errors and mistakes. They covered the main ‘who/what/where/which/why/ how’ queries as they had great difficulty distinguishing between these. These kind of routine, structured and predictable questions eventually produced responses. Many are factual, such as ‘who did you sit next to today?’ which are infinitely preferable to the ‘how do you feel?’ nebulous kind of enquiry.

They can be used to reinforce and generalize other skills that you’re working on, such as sharing, negotiating and compromising, asking for help. I appreciate that this is a very basic communication tool but it was an invaluable early stepping stone when five hours of total silence was more commonplace. Since I had three young children at the time, I started with my daughter and then each of my sons as the repetition helped them to know what was expected and also reassured them that this was just another piece of the everyday schedule. [that had to be endured!]

Try not to insist on eye contact or general body orientation. If you have a child pinned down to tackle a particular obstacle, such as answering verbal questions, now is the time to allow them to use all their different coping mechanisms in order to initiate a positive [verbal response.] What does this mean? Ignore the hand wringing, toe tapping, squirming, hair twiddling, ceiling staring, floppy bodies, chair rocking, clothes pulling, skin picking, ear tweaking, nail biting…….it doesn’t matter if they answer you, you can deal with all that later once you’re managed to evoke a verbal response. Don’t let it distract you from the primary goal, speech. If verbal communication is not their first choice, then we need to make it worth their while. If we cut off all their coping mechanisms we’re actually making it harder for them. {yes, I appreciate that this is the opposite advice from many speech therapists, where the child needs to stop all the fiddles because the fiddles are distracting}

From a parents perspective, it also gave me a tool to ensure that I was consistent and calm. It only took a few minutes a day. Although they were unresponsive for many weeks, eventually they accepted that this was just another one of those little parental hurdles that had to be overcome. For my boys at least, once something becomes accepted as part of the routine, there are far less meltdowns as it is no longer ‘new,’ but it can take a long time, far longer than the typical child. However, in the long run, however long that might be, it’s definitely a small step in the right direction.

Above all, do not become disheartened. Some of the changes we try to implement seem so tiny and insignificant. Although they are tiny and insignificant, they also have a huge negative impact upon our children, initially. What seemed like a jolly good idea in the middle of the night, can seem like the stupidest mistake the next day when we try and implement it. Once we have started a new routine or campaign, the fall out can be heavy, resistance can seem quite overwhelming. Suddenly the previous status quo seems infinitely preferable. We are then faced with the reality that we need to follow through on what we started, otherwise they learn that protest will succeed.

This is not to say that there aren’t mistakes. Sometimes we overlook something important such as timing. For example the first half hour at home after school may not be the best time to plague them with questions. This doesn’t mean that the question campaign should be abandoned, rather that a better time should be chosen when they’re more receptive. If we discover that one particular question provokes a more violent response, then change the question to something less taxing, avoid that trigger and stick to the big picture.

How do I know that this works for some children? Well one particularly frustrating day, my youngest son was fizzing away and unresponsive. As he leapt away, I ran after him clutching my question sheet and a pen. I resisted the urge to duct tape him to the floor. He kept running around the periphery of the room and I ran after him. Then he jumped up to touch something at shoulder height and shouted “Ryan!” in answer to ‘who did you sit next to today?’ He kept running and each jump and touch meant a shout, an answer. That was the first day that I had a verbal response to each question. This is how I learned to ignore the fizzies. I also learned to sit in the middle of the room whilst he ran rings around me. It’s been like that more or less, ever since.

I could write a whole book on just this one issue so I’ll shut up now as I can tell that I’m beginning to ramble.

Cheers dears

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